The Middle East Channel

Endgame in Syria?

The view that the civil war in Syria is entering into a new phase, perhaps its final one, is rapidly gaining ground. Having successfully resisting the Assad regime's onslaught, the rebels have improved their military efficacy. They have seized significant military targets, have made significant progress toward centralizing their command structure, and are consolidating their stronghold over substantial parts of the country. More and better weapons are coming their way, and the war appears poised to come to Damascus, for what could shape up into the conflict's most decisive battle. But are we really witnessing the beginning of the end? Or is this just another phase in what may prove to be an endless Afghan-style quagmire?

To answer this question, we should look to Libya rather than Afghanistan. NATO's intervention, following U.N. Resolution 1973, made all the difference in this conflict: by strengthening the rebels' hand and severely weakening Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces, it turned military defeat into rapid victory, against all prognostications of protracted war. However, to understand how aerial bombing could make such a tremendous difference in Libya, especially when massive U.S. firepower has failed to turn the war in Afghanistan, we must probe deeper.

The analysis of civil wars has been plagued by an imprecise use of terminology. Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria are all described as "insurgencies," a term used as a synonym of civil war or guerrilla war. This is a problem, because not all civil wars are guerrilla wars. A guerrilla (or irregular) war is a type of military contest characterized by a steep military asymmetry between the rival sides, whereby the weak side has no alternative by fight a war of evasion and ambush against the strong side. The objective of rebel combatants in guerrilla wars is typically to win through attrition. This produces long wars that frustrate the ability of conventional armies to translate their military superiority into victory. Counterinsurgency is notoriously hard, like "eating soup with a knife," to use a well-known metaphor. No wonder that Vietnam and Afghanistan turned into military quagmires.

However, the civil wars in Libya and Syria are no guerrilla wars; despite the initial military superiority of the regime forces, these conflicts look more like conventional than guerrilla wars. Unlike guerrilla wars fought in mountains or jungles by elusive bands of fighters, conventional wars entail pitched battles and urban sieges across clearly defined frontlines. In fact, conventional civil wars go back a long way: just think of classic conflicts such as the American and Spanish civil wars. More recently, conventional civil wars were fought in Bosnia and Azerbaijan. In our research, we find that conventional civil wars are much more common than generally thought; they represent 34 percent of all major civil wars (i.e. those causing over a thousand fatalities per year) fought between 1944 and 2004. More significant is the fact that conventional civil wars have increased in proportion after the end of the Cold War: they account for 48 percent of all civil wars fought between 1991 and 2004. In contrast, guerrilla wars have declined from 66 percent during the Cold War to just 26 percent after its end.

In a recent paper, we compare conventional and guerrilla wars to find that the former tend to be less bloody on the battlefield, causing on average 62,000 fatalities, as compared to 84,000 for guerrilla wars. However, once we control for war duration, we find that conventional wars are much more intense, causing on average 3,000 deaths per month compared to 1,250 for irregular wars. Another striking difference between these two types of war is their duration: conventional wars are short, lasting an average of 3 years, whereas guerrilla wars last an average of 9 years. Lastly, 63 percent of insurgencies end with a government victory, compared to just 34 percent for conventional wars. In short, conventional civil wars are more intense, shorter, and less likely to end in regime victories than irregular civil wars. Seen from this perspective, the difference between Libya and Afghanistan begins to make sense.

How about Syria then? With its pitched battles and urban fighting, this conflict is much closer to the Libyan war than to the Afghan conflict. Both the increasing level of external support and the availability of a safe haven in Turkey have improved the ability of rebels to directly fight the regime's military and thus turn this conflict into an increasingly symmetric, conventional war. If past record can serve as a guide, the Syrian civil war may well turn out to be shorter than generally anticipated; it is also likely to result in the regime's defeat. These outcomes do not preclude the emergence of post-conflict anarchy and violence; but they should prompt policy makers to be much more proactive than they currently are in anticipating developments that may come much faster than they think.

Laia Balcells is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University; Stathis Kalyvas is Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science at Yale University.


The Middle East Channel

Inquiry panel faulted the State Department in Benghazi attack

The U.S. State Department's Accountability Review Board (ARB) for Benghazi released a report citing failures of the State Department in the September 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya. The report by the independent panel, convened by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and headed by Admiral Mike Mullen, said security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was "grossly inadequate" to deal with the attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The review found "systematic failures" within the State Department, citing "leadership and management" deficiencies at two department bureaus -- Diplomatic Security and Near Eastern Affairs. It said no official ignored his or her duties or "engaged in misconduct," but cited poor coordination among officials, and "real confusion" over who had the responsibility and power to make policy and security decisions. Backlash over the attack turned political ahead of the November 6 presidential elections and Republicans have attacked U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for comments she made after the assault, leading her to withdraw from consideration to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State next year. Although no one was singled out in the review, the report is likely to tarnish the tenure of Clinton. She said she has accepted and will adopt all of the 29 recommendations made in the report.


The United Nations has appealed for about $1.5 billion for humanitarian assistance to deal with the Syrian crisis. The U.N. request was for $519.6 million to help the estimated four million people in need in Syria, two million who have been internally displaced, and $1 billion to go toward aid for the estimated 1 million refugees who fled the conflict and are living in five countries. The United Nations' statement said this is the "largest short-term humanitarian appeal ever" estimating that 25 percent of Syria's population is in need of humanitarian relief. Russia's Defense Ministry has announced it is sending a flotilla of five ships from the Baltic Sea port of Baltiysk to relieve ships near Syria, set to arrive in the beginning of January. A Russian naval official said the ships were "on their way to the coast of Syria for possible participation in the evacuation of Russian citizens." Russia has been a staunch ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, but in recent days has signaled it sees the government forces losing ground. Russia has insisted, however, that it has not changed position on Syria. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta appealed to Russia to begin cooperating with the growing international community supporting the opposition coalition working to remove Assad. The statements came after parts for NATO Patriot missiles began arriving in Turkey which will protect the border with Syria. Meanwhile, fierce clashes have continued near the capital of Damascus. According to Syrian state television, Syrian government forces are conducting a broad offensive against opposition fighters in the suburbs of Damascus, where the rebels have made significant gains capturing air bases and military installations. Fighting has continued in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk with government airstrikes on Tuesday.


  • Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, a unifying figure in Iraqi politics, who suffered a stroke on Monday is reportedly in a coma. However his condition is said to be improving.
  • Egyptian Islamist groups are planning a massive protest in Alexandria, the country's second largest city, on Friday, a day ahead of the final round of voting on the draft constitution.
  • The UAE has arrested 7 online activists critical of the government in the past week a month after the government tightened the law on internet use.

Arguments and Analysis

Breaking the Syria Stalemate (Amr al-Azm, Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

"There are two possible trajectories for the current Syrian crisis. The first is a purely military scenario in which the opposition forces engage the regime in a bitter war of attrition until its annihilation. The success of such a course of action, however, is difficult to guarantee, and the cost to the country, its infrastructure and its civilian population is likely to be catastrophic. In fact the more probable outcome is a protracted bloody stalemate, leading to the collapse of the state, sectarian genocide and the fragmentation of the country with significant blowback into neighbouring states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

The second trajectory would feature a political resolution. Negotiations would bring about the departure of the Bashar Assad's regime along with a peaceful transition to democracy. Such a political outcome is the one clearly favored by the international community and was strongly endorsed at the latest friends of Syria meeting held in Marrakesh on December 12 both in statement and in action (by not publicly agreeing to the provision of any military assistance to the Syrian opposition). It is also the option that should be favored by the Syrian people since they too have no interest in seeing their country succumb to the fate described above."

Are U.S. Munitions to Blame for Basra Birth Defects? (Alexander Smoltczyk, Spiegel Online)

"It sounds at first as if the old man were drunk. Or perhaps as though he had been reading Greek myths. But Askar Bin Said doesn't read anything, especially not books, and there is no alcohol in Basra. In fact, he says, he saw the creatures he describes with his own eyes: "Some had only one eye in the forehead. Or two heads. One had a tail like a skinned lamb. Another one looked like a perfectly normal child, but with a monkey's face. Or the girl whose legs had grown together, half fish, half human."

The babies Askar Bin Said describes were brought to him. He washed them and wrapped them in shrouds, and then he buried them in the dry soil, littered with bits of plastic and can lids, of his own cemetery, which has been in his family for five generations. It's a cemetery only for children.

Though they are small, the graves are crowded so tightly together that they are almost on top of one another. They look as if someone had overturned toy wheelbarrows full of cement and then scratched the names and dates of death into it before it hardened. In many cases, there isn't even room for the birth date. But it doesn't really matter, because in most cases the two dates are the same."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey